Editor’s note: This story appears in the June issue of Alaska Sporting Journal. Alaskan Sara Pozonsky is making a documentary on the farmed salmon vs. wild salmon controversy.
BY CHRIS COCOLES
The boat speeds across the waters off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island. The moment is accompanied by festive music amid a gorgeous Pacific Northwest backdrop.
Then producer Sara Pozonsky’s upcoming documentary, A Fishy Tale, changes the mood as the scene fades to black and then changes to a new location. The music is now far more sinister, the kind of score you’d be more likely to experience in a Sherlock Holmes film (in black and white with Basil Rathbone in the title role, not the modernized Robert Downey Jr. starring as the detective).
As the film evolved and the filmmakers began shooting, her attitude about the issue changed.
“Before I always thought, ‘If you choose to eat that; that’s great. I don’t care if you want to have farmed salmon; it doesn’t bother me,’” Pozonsky says. “But I realized the impact it was having environmentally and the threat it was having
Pozonsky and her boat are now drifting just outside one of several British Columbia commercial salmon farms that have triggered a debate: should wild salmon be protected from the alleged risk of farmed salmon, and which type should be served in restaurants and bought at grocery stores?
“I’m looking at the sign here and it says, ‘Restricted Area,’’’ Pozonsky says into the camera, “and I’m wondering what do they have to hide? Why can’t anyone come here and see what they are doing?”
Whether you agree with them or not, Pozonsky, director Tracie Donahue and their modest crew will at worst make you think a lot about that king fillet you ordered at your favorite seafood joint, or check the label at the fish counter when you picked out a piece of coho salmon for your summer cookout.
Is the film right? Is farmed salmon so full of dangerous pesticides and other artificial ingredients you may as well puff a cigarette instead? Are the net pens that are outlawed in Alaska but growing in numbers around British Columbia a threat to the waters’ wild salmon population for fear of a virus that all but wiped out salmon farms in South America?
As the film evolved and the filmmakers began to shoot, her attitude about the issue changed.
“Before I always thought, ‘If you choose to eat that; that’s great. I don’t care if you want to have farmed salmon; it doesn’t bother me,’” Pozonsky says. “But I realized the impact it was having environmentally and the threat it was having to wild salmon. Then I became personally offended by it, and that’s when kind of this war broke loose, and this was not going un-noticed. I needed to make people aware of what they were doing.”
“It’s not just a simple food choice here.”
BUT IT’S ANYTHING but a simple subject for the public to grasp. In the film, Pozonsky conducts woman-on-the-street interviews in Victoria, B.C. and asks about the potentially harmful toxins and chemicals wild salmon supporters believe are far more abundant and in farmed salmon. A woman said she was unaware of any toxins in the fish; the man she was with said as an angler he knows the farm salmon that are raised in such close proximity are more susceptible to contracting viruses from other fish.
In another spot in Victoria, a young woman suggested to Pozonsky farmed fish actually have less toxins than fish harvested from open waters. So go figure.
“I just think you need to ask questions about where your food comes from. It boils down to that. We need to be aware of what we’re eating and how that impacts everything,” she says. “We have to start demanding that our food is healthy.”
The film’s director, Tracie Donahue, also has spent time in Alaska – she went to high school in Anchorage but currently lives in the Baltimore area. Fishing and salmon were not the passion it’s always been for Pozonsky.
“I used to go fishing with my parents growing up, but I didn’t enjoy it. My parents would laugh at me because I really hated being there,” Donahue says. “I hadn’t heard about farmed fish. I never really had any feelings one way or the other about the subject until Sara started talking to me about it. The more research I did, the more I realized it was definitely a problem worth highlighting.”
Pozonsky sees the problem with fish farms that dot many of the coastal areas around Vancouver Island is they are of the open-net variety – “If they would do it on land, it would be fantastic,” she says – and skeptics say the farms are dumping dangerous material into the waters adjacent to the fish pens where the wild salmon make their runs from the sea to the rivers.
(In February, British Columbia-based Willowfield Enterprises opened a land-based sockeye salmon farm.)
“When you grow a carnivore species together like that in close proximity, they’re very aggressive fish. So (fish pens) are not natural places for them to be anyway. There are a lot of other things that you can farm that handle that a lot better. They just get sick from each other living that close together. They combat that with a lot of chemicals.”
One such complex concoction is known as SLICE, which is designed to combat chronic sea lice infestation, which if it spreads, could devastate the wild salmon population.
While Canada has welcomed such operations, they are banned in salmon-rich Alaska.
“There are a lot of other sicknesses they can get, so they’re constantly giving them antibiotics along with the hormones to make them grow faster,” Pozonsky says. “What (the farm salmon) are doing is going from small to fully grown in a year. Whenever you do that you’re genetically altering fish.”
And it is triggering outrage from wild salmon supporters.
THE MOVIE IDEA came up about three years ago from a conversation between Pozonsky and her friend, aspiring film- maker Donahue. Pozonsky and her sister-in-law, Trish Kopp, are the co-owners of Wild Alaskan Salmon Company, which preaches “always wild, never farmed,” in the seafood they offer customers.
“At that time, three years ago, I was explaining the frustration I was seeing with farmed fisheries and what was going on. There just seemed to be a lack of regulation and how it was killing off our wild salmon,” Pozonsky says. “So she said, ‘we should do a movie about it.’ I said I had no idea what that meant. But we went for it.”
And on they went. In an early edit of the film, among the targets Pozonsky, Donahue and crew target is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has pushed for more fish farm operations in United States’ coastal waters, including Alaska.
Pozonsky traveled to Washington to interview Congressman Don Young (R), who represents Alaska in the House of Representatives and pushed for the ban of Alaskan salmon farms; he vowed his state won’t go that route as long as he’s in office.
“It’s the wrong thing to do, and we’ve managed (wild salmon) beautifully. We took a hit when Chile started (exporting) fish to us,” Young says in the film. “Now we have a federal agency trying to promote offshore fish farms that we call open-net farms. It’ll be leased by the federal government (to private companies). NOAA is promoting this because they want to eliminate the fisherman. They would destroy a business that’s very valuable to the state of Alaska. I’m working very hard to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
“It’s basically a very typical David and Goliath story. It’s someone with no money and no resources behind them trying to fight a giant industry that has silenced people in the past,” Pozonsky adds, citing a Scot, Don Staniford, who’s fought fish farmers in his native country and lost to them in court.
Pozonsky also realizes she’s an underdog in her plight. She’s tried to raise funds to make her movie, and it’s not always easy to roust up supporters. In one scene, she attempts to picket NOAA headquarters in Washington D.C. But the only willing participant she can tote along is her Labrador retriever, Sport. But there she is, a woman and her dog, the former sporting a white t-shirt that said “MY FISH AINT FARMED,” and the latter sniffing the grass carrying around a “DON’T FEED ME FARMED FISH” sign. A few curious observers stop briefly, but keep moving despite her pleas to protest with her.
“NOAA is this agency that’s supposed to protect our oceans and make sure everything is healthy out there,” Pozonsky says. “They’re the ones pushing for fish farms in America. It totally contradicts their mission statement to protect the environment.”
Cue David moving off Goliath’s turf with plans to fight another day.
FISHING HAS DEFINED Sara Pozonsky’s life. She’s from Newhalen, a tiny Eskimo village on the north shore of Iliamna Lake near Bristol Bay’s world-class salmon spawning grounds. Her father, the late Charles Crapuchettes, was a teacher by trade but also spent summers commercially fishing Bristol Bay and the Cook Inlet (Sara spent summers helping out on the boat). Her brothers eventually captained their own commercial vessels.
“That was our life. This is who I am and I love that part of me. This is my heritage; this was my dad, and he taught me all this passion about Alaska,” she says.
After Charles died in 2004, Pozonsky wanted to do something to honor her father’s legacy as a hard-working fisherman. She was divorced and had moved to Pittsburgh, where her eventual future husband, Paul, was from. While in Pennsylvania, Sara turned the Steel City into salmon city.
“At that time I was realizing a lot of restaurants in Pittsburgh had crappy seafood. So I started working with chefs and said, ‘Hey, if you want some fish I’ll just fly it directly to you,’” Pozonsky says. “It was kind of weird; it was just me supplying the chefs in Pittsburgh with amazing Copper River king salmon. Because I knew all these fishermen in the processing plants and I’d been working with them.”
In blue-collar Pittsburgh, where a piroshki and a beer is common table fare at eateries throughout the city, some restaurants had a pipeline to fresh, wild seafood from the Pacific.
In Pozonsky’s mind, being a liaison between Pittsburgh’s restaurateurs and salmon was a way to “keep my Alaska roots connected.” But she wanted to take that a step further and sell the fish herself.
“I called my sister-in-law and said, ‘Let’s do this. It could be a really great money-maker.’ So I got her all passionate and pumped up about it.”
Kopp, who had worked at a fish processing plant, worked the business from the Alaska end while Pozonsky lived in Pittsburgh (she and her new family are now back in Alaska).
Wild Alaskan Seafood Company (seabeef.com) has taken a hit due to the recession, but selling wild salmon and other seafood is a labor of love for them they hope to continue to do so, with or without a significant profit. A Fishy Tale hopes to define what she grew up believing in: that eating wild fish taken straight from their natural habitat is the best culinary choice.
“The consumers really need to have awareness in where their food is coming from. I hope when they watch this film they realize not only the health risks to the salmon, but how it’s devastated peoples’ livelihood,” she says. “And that’s why farm salmon has me so ticked off. I really believe it’s the No. 1 overlooked environmental catastrophe. It’s a disaster.”
Pozonsky’s fire-and-brimstone approach to her cause strikes a chord throughout the film.
“When someone is truly passionate about something it really comes across on film, and that in itself could create a social change,” the director, Donahue says. “I decided that change needed to be the underlining message of the film. How can one person drive change and fight against such a huge business like the farmed fisheries. For Sara’s circumstance she wanted to get the message out about what is really in farmed fish and at least make a change in the process.”
THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA took on the farming vs. wild debate in May, when 60 Minutes sent correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta to British Columbia, where farm salmon business is booming, and Alaska, which made sure to keep them out of the state a quarter-century ago.
Gupta spent considerable time with B.C. fish farmer Ian Roberts, who works for the world’s largest salmon farming corporation, Marine Harvest. But Gupta also gained some perspective from wild salmon advocate Alexandra Morton, who also is one of the more compelling interview subjects in A Fishy Tale.
The 60 Minutes report seemed rather objective to the situation. But Pozonsky wasn’t buying the farming side’s argument that there is no evidence that farmed salmon are a threat on your dinner table or to the wild salmon population.
Disease was the culprit when salmon farmed in Chile died at an alarming rate five years ago. The Chilean incident is ground zero for the argument that a similar out- break in Canada or even Alaska can in theory wipe out wild salmon, which aren’t native to the waters in South America.
“The thing that stood out to me in (Gupta’s) report is, why take the risk of harming the wild salmon and the environment?” Pozonsky wrote in an email.
“The Canadians are proving they don’t have it figured out, and the wild salmon are disappearing. Blame it on whatever you want, but the reality is wild salmon were thriving before the fish farms moved in.”
Chile’s salmon died of infectious salmon anemia (ISA), and Gupta pressed lawyer Brian Wallace, who represents the Cohen Commission, a $26 million project that’s been assessing the situation, for an answer if B.C.’s open-net salmon are already showing outbreaks of ISA. Wallace struggled to come up with a response, which infuriated Pozonsky.
“It’s crazy that he doesn’t know or wouldn’t admit after so much research; it’s insane, really,” she wrote. “The Canadian government spent a fortune trying to answer that question and still can’t answer it.”
“There were no answers here from the salmon farmers; they made it sound like the injections of antibiotics and the hormones they are giving the fish was no big thing. We’re just trying to point out the obvious, or at least prove that open-net fish farms are not the answer.
AMONG A FISHY TALE’S final arguments were from Clem Tillion, a past chairman of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council and one of Alaska’s grand poobahs when it comes to fish. The idea that NOAA is kicking the tires on allowing B.C.-style fish farms in Alaska is puzzling to a veteran commercial fisherman like Tillion.
“We have one of the finest salmon runs in the world; why would you take the risk?” he asks. “It’s the fallout from these things that’s dangerous. (B.C. fish farms) are in little protected places, which are the last (places) you want.”
But as Donahue says in her film narration: money talks. The business of utilizing aquaculture to raise salmon, an increasing staple of the seafood diet of diners around the world, equates to dollar signs as more and more secluded coves and inlets in Canadian waters add farms. It’s more a case of what could happen than what is happening. But Pozonsky is taking the proactive approach in delivering her message.
“I think once people get more aware, they turn their attention more to fish farms, and as it becomes more prominent in America people say, ‘Hey,’ and start to stand up,” she says.
“People may say I’m overstating my case and I’m exaggerating; fine. Let it be, but let it be known that I raised the warning flag long before fish farms ever came to Alaska.”
For more information and to see a trailer for the film, A Fishy Tale, go to its website at afishytalemovie.com.